Joshua Riess and Christopher Murphy have been best friends since college. When Chris ends his latest relationship just before Christmas, Joshua can’t help but reflect on their past as lovers and wish that their intimate relationship had never ended.
One small confession on his part makes it impossible for him to hide his feelings. He’s ready to lay it all on the line no matter how much it might hurt. Will he get his heart’s desire this holiday season?
Joshua Riess let himself into the house he shared with his business partner and best friend since college with a little sigh of relief. Riess & Murphy Designs was well on its way to being the top design firm in Miami, so his work day hadn’t been all that stressful, but it hadn’t been fun either. It was never all that much fun when Chris wasn’t there, and his partner had taken the day to get the house ready for a date.
The Christmas tree in the corner of the great room was twinkling with the white lights Chris had insisted on. Silver and red ornaments hung artfully on the branches. Matching presents were tucked underneath. Joshua dutifully made sure to use the red wrapping paper and silver gift bags his friend had supplied.
Mostly the display was for the benefit of Chris’ girlfriend and the various parents that would be in and out of their house over the next week. Each room in the house had a little, tasteful hint of Christmas. Not enough to be obnoxious, but just enough to make it perfect. He checked his watch; he had about an hour before he had to be gone for the evening. He’d promised Chris the house so he could entertain his girlfriend, Marta.
He went into the kitchen and stopped at the sight of Chris at the table. “Hey.”
Chris took a deep breath and sighed. “Hi.”
“What’s up?” Josh grabbed a beer from the fridge and opened it with a quick twist. “No food on, the table isn’t set… Did Marta cancel?”
Chris grimaced. “I’m actually having the meal delivered. Couldn’t cancel it at this hour.” He checked his watch. “Italian from Burtucci’s.”
“Did she have to work?” Josh asked. “I thought she was off until the New Year.”
“We broke up,” Chris said in a rush. “She… It’s done.”
Josh absorbed that, more than a little shocked. Chris had been shopping for rings for three weeks, and as far as he knew was very close to picking out one so he could propose on New Year’s. “That’s… Hmm.” He took a long swallow of his beer. “Dude. Help me out here.”
Chris laughed weakly. “She was an asshole about something, and I told her that if she couldn’t handle it then we were done. She said a few foul things that made me want to slap her, and I knew I had to get out of there because I’ve never even come close to hitting a woman before. So I told her we were finished, and I left.”
“About?” Josh prodded, frustrated that Chris was being purposefully vague.
“You, this house, our company, and my plans for the future.”
Marta worked for another design firm, which had never bothered Josh one way or another, at least until now. “She wanted you to come to work at her Daddy’s company, right?”
“Yes,” Chris said. “And she wanted to move in and didn’t see why I couldn’t ask you to move out since she really liked this house a lot.”
“Except this house belongs to our business,” Josh said dryly.
“Which pissed her off even more so than the fact that I refused to leave our partnership for a job with her father.” Chris sat back in his chair and frowned as the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” Josh said quietly and walked through the house. He answered the door and faked Chris’ signature on the credit card receipt before accepting the box of food. He had to admit it smelled great.
By the time he returned to the kitchen, Chris had put out some plates and opened a bottle of wine. Josh went along with his friend, watching him for signs that he was going to have some sort of meltdown. His relationship with Marta had been two years in the making, and Josh couldn’t figure out how there wouldn’t be significant fallout on Chris’ part.
He settled in at the table and accepted the glass of wine. Chris put the beer he’d half finished on the table beside his plate with a wry grin.
“Is there… I’m not sure how to help you out here.”
“This is…” Chris took a deep breath. “This is good actually. It’s been a while since I enjoyed a meal in peace. Marta has been increasingly hostile toward just about anything that didn’t go her way.”
“When did this start?” Josh asked as he picked up his fork and started working on his pasta.
Chris frowned into his wine glass and shrugged. “I guess around the time we met Marco and Janie in Aspen for skiing. One of them let it slip that you and I used to…” Chris waved a hand as if to encompass the four year friends with benefits relationship the two of them had enjoyed in college.
“And that’s why she wanted you to live with her instead of me?” Josh asked. “You told her that was in the past, right?”
“Yeah, of course I did. I mean, I told her the truth. That you weren’t interested in anything serious, and I was looking to get married.” He frowned and put down the wine. “Then she started bitching about how much my parents talk about you. How proud they are of the company and all that jazz. She said she felt like a third wheel in our relationship and wanted me to sever both my business and personal relationship with you because she didn’t trust me not to sleep with you.”
“Wow.” Josh sat back in his chair. “That’s pretty nasty. I mean, you’ve never given her any reason to think you’d cheat on her.”
“No, I haven’t.”
Chris ate in silence for a few minutes and Josh let himself go over the entire conversation in his head. He didn’t remember their parting after college that way. Chris had made some good arguments about ceasing their sexual relationship, and most of them had been about their business plans and preserving their friendship. Josh had…well, he’d agreed, but it hadn’t been what he wanted. At the time, he’d seen Chris as his partner. His life partner. He’d thought that they’d been working their way into a romantic relationship for quite a while.
Chris’ announcement that they should end the “benefits” part of their relationship had been startling and painful. It might have started out that way, but for Josh it had changed by the end of their junior year. He’d admitted, at least to himself, that he was in love with Chris, and it had hurt when his friend hadn’t returned those feelings. But he’d pushed it aside because beyond anything else, Chris was his best friend.
Watching Chris drift from man to woman and finally to Marta in the ten years since they’d graduated college had hurt, but Josh had wanted Chris to be happy more than anything else.
“What foul things did she have to say?” Josh asked.
Chris flushed. “Just some bullshit about…”
“Me,” Josh supplied. “Hardly the first time, I’d imagine. She’s never liked me.”
“I didn’t…she’s never said that shit in front of me, Josh. I would’ve never tolerated it. I mean, hell, I’m bisexual, which I thought she knew but apparently didn’t until the Aspen trip. It sort of all came to a head today.”
The trip had been before Thanksgiving, so Josh was a bit surprised that it had taken so long for things to get to the argument level. He had to wonder how long Marta had stewed on the matter before she’d started maneuvering to push him out of Chris’ life. “You love her.”
Chris paused and sat back in his chair. He dropped his fork in his plate and grabbed his wine glass. “I’m not in love with her, but I thought we could have a good life together. Do I love her? I thought I did, but it’s really hard to think that’s even possible after the bullshit she said today.”
“So, I’m the fag friend holding you back from a good job at an established, long-standing design company,” Josh summed up.
Fury flashed across Chris’ face, and then he drained his wine glass.
Josh picked up the bottle and gamely refilled the glass when Chris put it back on the table.
“I don’t think that,” Chris said, “and I don’t give a fuck what she thinks.”
“Let’s just enjoy the meal,” Josh murmured. “We can figure out the rest of this crap tomorrow, okay?”
* * * * *
Josh leaned against the wall and let the water beat down on him from the dual showerheads above him. He had a little buzz due to the bottle of wine he’d split with Chris. He knew his friend wouldn’t open a second bottle so he’d done his best to drink half. The last thing Chris needed was to wake up with a hangover in the morning.
He dropped his head forward and sighed. He wasn’t looking forward to the morning either, if he were to be honest. Josh hated few things like he did a breakup drama. Unfortunately for him, Chris sort of excelled at breakup drama. In the first three years after college it had been something of a hobby.
Honestly, Josh didn’t see how serial monogamy was any less damaging than his casual arrangements. In fact, he’d never had one of his casual sex friends throw his shit out on the lawn and set it on fire. Chris, on the other hand, had called the fire department not once but on four different occasions. Though the worst had been the Would-be Bunny Boiler MacKenzie Wilhelm Georges, III.
Josh laughed a little as he soaped up the fluffy white bath thing Chris regularly replaced in his bathroom. MacKenzie—old Boston money and a complete nut job—had been the second man Chris had dated out of college. Josh had been really thankful they hadn’t had any pets when that breakup drama reached its pinnacle. It had taken a restraining order and an arrest for violating it to finally put an end to that whole mess.
He finished up his shower and dressed in a pair of pajama pants. They’d bought the house as an investment and to showcase Chris’ designs. Josh handled the finances and the general management of their company, while Chris was the creative force. He was a very sought after interior designer in the area. Josh figured that had as much to do with Marta’s initial interest in him as anything else. They had four other designers on the payroll these days. In theory, Josh would survive without Chris, but the idea of having the company without him was an uncomfortable one.
Josh left his floor and trotted down the stairs to set the security. He could hear Chris in the shower on the second floor where his bedroom and office were. He checked the locks on all the doors and verified all the windows on the bottom floor were secured before setting the security.
Chris was hovering in his the doorway of his bedroom, wearing a towel that hung on his trim, fit frame by a miracle, when Josh reached the second floor. “Hey.”
“Just setting security,” Josh explained.
Chris inclined his head and had the audacity to smirk. “Think she’ll try to sleep on our patio like Mac did?”
Josh laughed. “I hope she’s not that stupid.” He leaned against the railing and sighed. The towel shifted on Chris’ hips but didn’t fall. He hated that towel. He hated all the towels everywhere. “She isn’t the first of your relationshipsto complain about us sharing this house. I could look for a place.”
Chris frowned. “This house is as much yours as it is mine, Josh. I don’t want to… The fact is, I figured I’d move out when I get married. There is no reason to change things now unless…well, if I make it difficult for you to bring people home or whatever. You never mentioned it. I realize that living in a showcase can be a hassle sometimes.”
“The clients seem to like meeting here, and everyone talks about our dinner parties,” Josh murmured. “I don’t have a problem with it. But I’m not the one who just ended another relationship.” He sighed. “For a man ready for commitment, Chris, you’re really gun shy.”
Chris glared at him. “What? Am I supposed to stay with some homophobic twat rather than be single again?”
“You know very well that’s not what I mean,” Josh chided. “I’d never want you to be with someone like that.” He ran his fingers through his damp hair. “Let’s…hmm…go to bed. I mean, you’ve had a hard day, and I’m a little tipsy. I don’t want to argue with you when we were on the same side.”
“No, agreed.” Chris sighed.